William glanced at his watch, surprised to see that half an hour had passed since his last time check. As often happened, a bit of Elizabeth’s ease and confidence at parties had rubbed off on him, and he was enjoying himself far more than he would have thought possible. Of course, it also helped that he had friends in attendance. But time alone with his fiancée had been in short supply since his arrival yesterday, and his patience was waning.
She intercepted his beseeching look. “If you’ll excuse us,” she said to two college friends of Jane’s during the next lull in the conversation, “I think I need some fresh air.” She smiled up at William. “Want to go outside for a walk?”
Two minutes later they stood on the sidewalk, admiring the house’s exterior. Noting her slight shiver, he removed his jacket and placed it over her shoulders.
“This place is amazing, isn’t it?” she asked, her eyes wide with awe.
“And the owner is one of Jane’s Bar Association friends?”
“Right. An entertainment lawyer who married a client. I understand she got the house in the divorce. It sure is a perfect place for a wedding.”
“Yes.” The white walls, high ceilings, and towering windows lent a spiritual feeling to the occasion. But his thoughts weren’t on the house. “I’ve missed you,” he murmured, draping an arm around her shoulders.
“Same here.” She rested her head on his shoulder and he committed the moment to memory: the crisp, sunny day, the satisfaction of his friend’s happy ending, and above all, the warmth of his future wife’s presence at his side. He sighed happily and drew her into an embrace.
“Will?” It was Charles, sounding apologetic.
William opened his eyes. “Go away, Charles.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt. But Jane and I need to leave for the airport soon, and there’s something I want to tell you first.”
William heaved a sigh and released Elizabeth. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
“No, no, it’s good news. At least, I think so. I just haven’t gotten around to telling you yet, and Jane says—well, anyway, I don’t want to leave on my honeymoon without telling you.”
“Go ahead and talk to Charles,” Elizabeth said. “I’m going to hit the food table again. At the rate I’m going, I’ll have to take about ten extra dance classes this week.”
Her hasty departure surprised William. Wasn’t she curious about Charles’s news? Then he realized that she must already know it. “So, what is it, Charles?”
“I wanted to tell you this yesterday, but I was afraid ….” Charles shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Will, I’m going to be a father.”
William’s eyes, and then his mouth, flew open. “Jane is pregnant?”
Charles nodded, his face alight with bashful pride. “We hadn’t intended for this to happen quite so soon, but ….” He grinned. “Can you believe it?”
“Congratulations.” William extended his hand, but then thought better of it and gave Charles a hearty hug.
“We just found out a few days ago, and we’re only telling a few people for now. Lizzy’s been dying to tell you, but I wanted to be the one to do it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday? We were together all afternoon.”
Charles grimaced. “I was afraid you’d resurrect the argument about the house.”
“I would have, if I hadn’t promised Lizzy that I’d stop mentioning it. The house is a much better place to raise a family.”
“The condo will be fine for now. It has a second bedroom for a nursery. Once I’ve been working for a while, maybe we’ll be able to buy something bigger.” Charles smiled ruefully. “But there’s one aspect of parenthood I guess I hadn’t thought through.”
“Kids are expensive. I may as well put the jazz club on hold for the next twenty years or so.”
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Any time you want an investor, just ask.”
“Thanks, Will. If I had my own capital to invest along with yours, I might say yes. But I can’t let you carry me.”
William nodded. He would have said the same thing in Charles’s position.
Charles sighed. “I don’t mind living on a budget, or not being able to go out and buy a new surfboard, or a new Porsche, whenever I’m in a bad mood. All of that came at way too high a price.”
William nodded again.
“But sometimes I think about the things I could have given Jane … and my children.” Charles shoved a hand through his hair. “Even the wedding. My God, Will, she worked herself to death to keep the cost down. It was bad enough before, but once I found out she was pregnant and she still wouldn’t slow down ….” He shook his head.
William didn’t need any further explanation. It would have dealt his pride a fatal blow to watch Elizabeth pinching pennies until they squeaked in order to afford even a modest wedding. A pregnant fiancée pinching pennies would be a thousand times worse. “That’s why you were so anxious to help her yesterday afternoon.” Sudden realization struck. “And why Lizzy asked me to make myself useful.”
Charles nodded. “She and I have been nagging Jane about taking it easy, to no visible effect.” He grinned. “So what do you say? Does ‘Uncle Will’ sound good to you?”
It did. “It sounds a lot better than ‘Aunt Wilhelmina.’”
They chuckled, and Charles thumped William on the back. “Let’s get back to the party.”
Just as they reached the front door, it opened. Mrs. Bingley stood in the doorway. “Charles, I’ve been looking for you. Jane said you were out here.”
“Hi, Mom. I was just telling William about the baby.”
“Oh, good.” Mrs. Bingley smiled at William. “This morning at breakfast, I wasn’t sure if you knew, so I had to be careful what I said. Isn’t it wonderful news?”
William smiled. “Yes, it is.”
Mrs. Bingley hesitated. “Charles, dear, can we talk for just a minute? There’s something I need to discuss with you, and I’ve put it off for long enough.”
Charles grinned at William. “Sounds familiar. It must run in the family.”
“I’m going to go find Lizzy,” William said. “I’ll see you later.”
“Did you enjoy yourself today?” Charles asked his mother as she led the way into a small study at the rear of the house. He was glad for the chance for a private talk. She looked ten years older than when he had seen her in November, the lines of chronic sadness etched deeply into her face.
“Oh, my goodness, yes. Jane is a marvelous hostess. What a shame that ….” She winced and gave him a pained smile.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he said gently. “I’m happy with my life. I have an interesting job and good friends, and today I married the most amazing woman in the world.”
“I’m glad.” She smiled, but the shadows in her eyes remained. “I miss you, Charlie.”
The use of his childhood nickname touched him. “I know. I miss you, too. And I’m worried about you.”
“About me? Why?”
“Because things can’t be easy at home. I’m gone, and Caroline is busy running the company, and that means you’re the only one Father has to use as an emotional punching bag.”
She shook her head, her sadness so palpable it seemed to dim the room. “He almost never speaks to me anymore, or to anyone, for that matter. He’s so deep inside himself. They say depression after heart surgery isn’t unusual, but I think there’s an even bigger problem. He regrets what happened with you.”
“Has he said so?”
“No, he’d never admit it. But he misses you. I can tell.”
Charles shook his head. “You’re just seeing what you want to see, Mom. I’ve never been anything but a huge disappointment to him.”
“That’s not true. He loves you; he just doesn’t know how to show it. And it’s my fault you don’t know that.”
“It is not.” He spoke with unintended force. “Mom, you’re not to blame for his failings.”
“But I am to blame for not protecting you. I sat by year after year and watched while he chipped away at your self-esteem.” Her eyes filled with tears and she spoke in a voice thick with emotion. “You deserved more than that from me.”
“It’s not your fault. He’s always been hard on all of us.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I’m your mother and I let you down. But I’m not going to do it anymore.”
She opened the small purse on her lap, removed an envelope, and handed it to him.
“What is this, Mom?”
“You’re still a member of this family, and you deserve to share in the family’s resources.” She spoke with an intensity he had never heard from her.
He tore open the envelope and glanced at the top of the document. “You got him to release my trust fund?”
She sighed. “No. He refused to discuss it. But a few weeks ago, his attorney brought me some forms to sign. Ronald usually stands over me while I sign them, so I don’t usually read them. But this time he wasn’t there. I read them, and I asked some questions. And then I took them to a different attorney and asked some more questions.”
“It turns out that your father has been gradually putting assets in my name without my realizing it. At this point I control over about one-third of the family money, along with a sizable chunk of the company.”
Charles’s mouth dropped open. “Why would he do that?”
“He’s protecting the assets. From what, I’m not sure. Perhaps he’s concerned that Caroline’s insider trading case will affect more than just her holdings.” She inclined her head toward the papers in his hand. “I set up a new trust fund for you. It’s not a huge sum, but it should be more than enough to let you keep your house. I hope you’ll do that. It would be a wonderful place for my grandchild to grow up.”
Images washed over Charles of his child’s first, wobbly steps, taken in the bright, spacious kitchen, or perhaps in the leafy back yard. “Mom, thank you, but I can’t let you do this. When Father finds out, he’ll be furious.”
“He already knows, and he can’t do a thing about it. He gave me power by signing so many things over to me, and I’m using that power to help you.” She grasped his arms. “Please, let me do this. I know it doesn’t make up for the way I failed you, but it’s the best I can do now.”
He stared at the hand gripping his forearm. Blue veins stood out under her pale skin, giving her an almost transparent look. “Thank you, Mom. This means so much. We would have been fine living in Jane’s condo, but we love the house.”
“I’m going to have to talk to Jane.”
“Of course. And, Charles, about the jazz club. When you’re ready to go ahead with it, I’ll help you.”
He shook his head. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told William. When I buy a club, it’s going to be at least in part with my own money. But when that day comes, if you’re still willing, I’d love to have you as an investor.”
“Nothing could make me more proud.” She brushed a tear from her cheek. “You are happy, aren’t you, Charlie?”
“Happier than I’ve ever been in my life.” He enfolded her in a warm hug. “I love you, Mom,” he whispered, feeling tears sting his own eyes.
“Are you comfortable?”
“Mmm.” Elizabeth snuggled deeper into the pillow on William’s lap.
The long, busy day had left Elizabeth with a headache. William, demonstrating a talent for nurturing that astonished her, had coaxed her out of her bridesmaid’s dress, into her most comfortable robe, and onto the sofa, her head cradled on a pillow on his lap. His fingers traced a lazy circle over her forehead.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
“I know the last thing you wanted to hear was, ‘Not tonight, dear. I have a headache.’ Especially after I made you sleep across town last night.”
“I reserve the right to deny it later,” he said softly, “but I think I’ll survive. I certainly owe you, after all my headaches last fall.”
She nodded gingerly, trying not to jar anything loose inside her head. “I’m so glad that’s in the past. I used to worry about you all the time.”
“But you always made me feel better. I’ll never forget the first time you did this for me, in my studio at the conservatory.”
“I remember. You were so upset about the doctor’s diagnosis.”
“Thank goodness you realized something was wrong, and instead of walking out on me, you got me to talk about it.” He caressed her cheek. “If I hadn’t already been in love with you, I would have fallen for you that day.”
“I knew it was a big thing for you, to open up and tell me how scared you were. It was one of the things that made me start trusting you, at least a little.”
“It was a new experience, to have someone I could confide in.” His voice was wistful.
Elizabeth raised his hand to her lips. Then she turned on her side and gazed across the room through bleary eyes. The small spray of orchids she had carried in the ceremony lay on the coffee table, its fragile blooms a ghostly white in the deep shadows. Somewhere outside a dog yapped in frantic tones, and then fell silent. A chilly breeze tiptoed through the half-open window, and with a shiver she tucked her bare feet under the hem of her pink flannel bathrobe.
“It was a good day,” she murmured.
“They’re going to be happy together.”
“The second happiest couple in the world.”
She smiled and squeezed his hand. “Absolutely.” She closed her eyes while images of the wedding washed over her. “And Mrs. Bingley came through so they can keep the house.”
“She and I talked at breakfast this morning, and I thought she might be planning something.”
“Aha!” She pulled herself into a sitting position, pleased to find that her head survived the journey without throbbing. “You couldn’t give them the house yourself, so you schemed with his mother.”
“It wasn’t like that. I answered a question or two about the house, nothing more.”
She studied him with a narrowed gaze, but saw no hint of guilt. With a shrug, she rested her head on his shoulder. “I meant to ask you. What did you think of the ceremony?”
He paused before he responded. “I liked it.”
Another pause. “Nothing.”
“Oh, come on. I saw you raising your eyebrows when the minister invited everyone to form a circle around Jane and Charles. I could almost hear you thinking, ‘Only in California.’”
“When did you learn to read my mind?” he asked, stroking her hair.
“It didn’t take psychic powers. You looked like you weren’t sure if you should go with it or run off in terror, in case the live snakes were coming out next.”
He huffed air through his nose. “I wasn’t that bad.”
“No, but you’re so much fun to tease.” She patted his knee. “Jane saw the guests-in-a-circle thing at a friend’s wedding. She liked the way it created a sense of community.”
They were briefly silent, and then he said, “You know what I wish?”
“That we’d gotten a marriage license and made it a double wedding.”
“And broken your grandmother’s heart?” she asked in a light-hearted tone.
His only answer was a soft sigh.
She lifted her head from his shoulder and studied his expression. “I know our wedding isn’t going to be anything like this one.”
He shook his head sadly. “It’s going to be a three-ring circus.”
“But afterwards, we’ll have two weeks at Pemberley, just the two of us.”
“We’ll need it.”
“You know, if it’s bothering you this much, let’s talk to your grandmother. It’s our wedding, and if we want something quieter, we should tell her.”
“No, I couldn’t do that to her. She’s waited decades for the opportunity to do this.” He sighed. “I’ll just have to survive it. I’ve been to plenty of big parties, and I guess it won’t be that much worse than one of those.”
She chuckled. “Now there’s a ringing endorsement.”
“I’m marrying you,” he said, pausing to kiss her forehead. “It wouldn’t matter if the ceremony involved walking on hot coals; it would still be worth it.”
In the warm silence that followed, Elizabeth realized that her headache was gone. She rose to her feet and extended her hand to William, who stood as well. “I know it’s still early,” she said softly, ”but I think it’s time for bed.”
He checked his watch. “Will it bother you if I read for a while? I’m not tired yet.”
She smiled and stepped closer, their bodies almost touching, and began to unbutton his shirt. “As a matter of fact, it will bother me if you read, but I’m very glad to hear that you’re not tired.”
”Oh, really?” he said, his eyes gleaming. “Does this mean your headache is gone?”
“You nursed me back to health, and I feel fine,” she murmured, pressing warm kisses to his chest. “But I bet you can make me feel a lot better than fine.”
Judging from his smile as she led him down the hall to her bedroom, he was looking forward to accepting that challenge.